Japanese former PM Shinzo Abe apologises over funding scandal

Apology follows indictment of an aide over subsidised cherry blossom viewing parties for supporters

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gestures while attending the lower house parliamentary session to face questioning over a possible violation of election funding laws, in Tokyo, Japan December 25, 2020.  REUTERS/Issei Kato
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Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe on Friday corrected statements he had made in parliament, apologising for what he said were mistakes regarding a political funding scandal that has also cast a pall over his successor.

Mr Abe said he felt deeply responsible for making repeated false denials that his political funding group had subsidised cherry blossom viewing parties for his supporters, in possible violation of the country's strict political funding laws.

Japan's longest-serving leader said he had known nothing about the payments and pledged to work to regain public trust. The apology came after his secretary was on Thursday summarily indicted over the issue and fined 1 million yen ($9,650).

"Even though the accounting procedures happened without my knowledge, I feel morally responsible for what happened," Mr Abe told a parliamentary committee. "I reflect on this deeply and apologise from my heart to the citizens and to all lawmakers."

Mr Abe also filed corrected political funding reports for the last three years.

The public apology marks a sharp reversal of fortune for Mr Abe, whose grandfather and great-uncle also served as premiers. He quit as prime minister on health grounds in September after nearly eight years in office.

The scandal threatens to damage his successor, Yoshihide Suga, who was Mr Abe's right-hand man throughout his term and has defended his former boss in parliament.

Mr Suga, who has been beset by other controversies and seen his support ratings slide less than a year before the next lower house election must be called, has apologised for making inaccurate statements.

Mr Abe did not respond to questions from opposition MPs about whether he would take political responsibility for the scandal by resigning as an MP. He struggled to explain why he was able to file detailed updated funding reports even though he says his office does not have the underlying receipts for the parties.

Mr Abe's statements to parliament from the end of 2019 contradicted the findings of the prosecutors at least 118 times, several domestic media reported, citing a parliamentary research bureau.

The scandal started after opposition lawmakers raised question about a 2018 dinner party for which Mr Abe’s guests paid a 5,000 yen fee. They have said that was low for a party at an upscale Tokyo hotel and alleged Mr Abe’s office covered the difference.

Prosecutors investigated whether Mr Abe, his aide and two executives from his political support group had subsidised the party fees in violation of campaign and election funds laws. Japanese law prohibits politicians from giving gifts to constituents.

The indictment alleged the aide, Hiroyuki Haikawa, failed to report that 11.6 million yen in admission fees were collected from party guests and a payment of 18.7 million yen was made to the hotel.

– with reporting from Reuters and Associated Press